Monitoring tripod  (Source: University of Washington)
Two new tidal turbines will be placed on the U.S. west coast for the first time

Researchers at the University of Washington will be measuring the environmental effects of tidal turbines through the first tidal energy project on the west coast of the United States. 

The researchers involved in the project are Brian Polagye, a research assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington; Chris Bassett, a University of Washington doctoral student in mechanical engineering; Jim Thomson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and oceanographer at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory, and an extended team of researchers. Together, they will assess tidal turbines' environmental effects through a demonstration project that will consist of large-scale tidal turbines being used on the west coast for the first time. 

Tidal power is a viable alternative energy option that is used in Europe more than the United States at this point. Despite this head start, Polagye says Europe is not that far ahead of the U.S. because they lack the environmental monitoring that this particular project will have. Little is known about tidal power today, and the University of Washington team plan on changing that.

"There really isn't that much information, anywhere, about the environmental effects of tidal turbines," said Polagye. "The results of this pilot project will help decide if this is an industry that has potential for going forward at the commercial scale, or if it stops at the pilot stage."

The tidal demonstration project will consist of two 30-foot-wide turbines located in Admiralty Inlet, which is a gateway to Puget Sound. The U.S. Department of Energy gave the Snohomish County Public Utility District a $10 million grant for this tidal project. They are now in the process of obtaining permits.

The turbines are expected to generate 100 kilowatts of electricity, which has the ability to power 50-100 homes in Washington "during the pilot phase." University of Washington researchers have been in a pilot site approximately 200 feet below the Admiralty Inlet's surface measuring the speed of these waters in order to get an idea of what they will be dealing with. So far, they have measured currents that are up to 8 knots, which is equivalent to 9 miles per hour.

Researchers have been measuring the currents for approximately two years through the use of a monitoring tripod. It is 850 pounds in the water, and is capable of tracking ambient noise, water quality, temperature, salinity and currents. It also records communication between marine creatures. The monitoring tripod has helped researchers learn more about the environment in which the turbines will be placed.

"There's surprisingly little known about the oceanography of these very fast waters," said Thomson. "These kinds of tidal channels where water is going very fast only happen in a few areas, and have not been well studied. The currents are so fast that it's hard to operate vehicles and maintain equipment. And it's too deep for conventional scuba diving."

One of the major concerns regarding this project is the amount of noise the turbines will make, since this could affect marine life, which use sound to communicate. To further investigate the processes and effects of this new technology, researchers used the sound of a Washington state ferry to test how sound travels and spreads through the waters. 

"When currents were more than about 2 knots the instruments are hearing considerable self-noise," said Polagye. "It's similar to when you're bicycling downhill and the air rushes past your ears."

As it turns out, the Admiralty Inlet lessens sound, making it so that the animals' hearing cannot be harmed. On the other hand, not hearing the sounds make it so they cannot avoid the turbines.

Despite this current concern, researchers feel that the Admiralty Inlet is a great spot for tidal power "from an engineering perspective." The turbines should be installed by 2013, and the environmental effects will be closely monitored.

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